'Around 85% of our work is in Dublin, but I love Belfast and I want to keep the business here'
The Big Interview: Ronan Higham
From leaving school at 15 to train as a joiner alongside his late father Jim, west Belfast man Ronan Higham now heads up one of the fastest-growing fit-out companies on the island of Ireland.
Set up four years ago with his friend and colleague, Niall McAuley, Pure Fitout has just opened a new 25,000sq ft workshop in Mallusk for its 50 staff.
The firm's customers include Dublin's rapidly expanding Press Up group and restaurant chains Five Guys and Boojum.
Despite the bulk of its work being based in the Republic, the Belfast man said he wants to keep the heart of his operation close to home.
Growing up in the Lenadoon area with six siblings, Ronan's career started at just 15 when he left the Christian Brothers School on the Glen Road to become an apprentice joiner with his father Jim's company.
"I learned how to be a joiner from him," he says.
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Through the mid-1980s and into the '90s, the pair worked closely together on small home contracts, but gradually secured a foothold in the commercial sector.
Fit-outs for pubs and restaurants eventually led to more office-type work.
"I kept pushing for us to do more in that line of business, because it was just a lot more straightforward to do, rather than working in people's homes," he says.
But tragedy struck when Jim passed away in 1996 after suffering a heart attack. He was just 54.
Just 25 himself, Ronan was left to carry on in his father's place.
"We had an absolutely fantastic relationship," he says.
"I only took a week off work and was straight back at it again.
"Looking back on it now, that was probably ridiculous really.
"But when you're self-employed, you have to keep moving.
"After my father died, I pushed myself more in the direction of office work and we ended up getting a contract in Britain, refitting offices all over for a few years."
That deal in 1999 marked a breakthrough for Ronan. "It was a turning point for me to get out of Belfast and out of Northern Ireland and see how things work elsewhere. It opens your eyes a bit."
The four-year contract with recruitment group Randstad took Ronan from Edinburgh to Portsmouth. It also instilled an approach to business that he retains with Pure Fitout, dealing directly with clients rather than developers.
"It has stuck with me since then, we insist on that."
In 2015 a conversation with surveyor Niall McAuley led to the creation of Pure Fitout.
"We were sitting talking, I was trying to get him to come on board. I said to him, 'It's just going to be pure fitout, nothing else'.
"When I said it I thought, that's a cracking name."
The pair soon recruited buyer Claire McCann to the fold.
Initially based in Belfast's Kennedy Way, in recent weeks Pure Fitout made the move to its new modern facility in Mallusk, representing a £250,000 investment.
"We were at 11,000sq ft and we were leasing a number of units all over the complex and it was just getting a bit messy.
"We had hoped that the three-year point would be the time for expansion anyway and it worked out that way. We started work in January and moved in at the end of March."
Pure Fitout's biggest customer is the Press Up Group in Dublin.
Owned by Paddy McKillen Junior, the group's growing portfolio includes the Elephant and Castle chain along with a series of restaurants in Dublin. It also operates The Devlin and The Dean boutique hotels.
Mr McKillen is the son of the west Belfast native and property magnate, who regularly is listed among Ireland's wealthiest individuals.
Press Up has emerged as one of the Republic's fastest-growing hospitality groups, offering a steady pipeline of work for Pure Fitout.
"They were our first project over the border in 2015," says Ronan.
"We did Angelina's restaurant for them, just off Baggot Street in Dublin."
This week the Co Antrim firm is on site for two Press Up projects, a new restaurant and the 100-bed Mayson Hotel, close to the 3Arena in Dublin's docklands area.
"It's our biggest project to date," says Ronan.
"It's going to be a really nice job when it's finished."
The frequency of the work in Dublin has prompted the company to open a new office on Chatham Street, just off Grafton Street in the city.
Pure Fitout also made its mark in Belfast early on by securing the contract for the first Five Guys restaurant on the island, in Victoria Square.
"We've done every Five Guys project and every single Press Up project since. That repeat business has helped to make us what we are today."
The expanding Mexican burrito chain Boojum is another key client.
Launched in Belfast in 2007, the business was sold in 2015 to private equity firm Renatus Capital Partners and former Ulster Rugby player Andrew Maxwell and his brother David.
Since then it has rapidly expanded south of the border.
Pure Fitout has also carried out work for the Dublin-based hospitality group NolaClan.
Last year the firm transformed the former Madison Hotel on Botanic Avenue into House Belfast.
"We do a lot of bars and restaurants for them as well. They have pushed us into facilities management, looking after their projects after we've finished.
"We started another business, Pure Facilities, out of that around 18 months ago."
It's another growing area for the Co Antrim firm, turning over just over £1m last year.
Overall, the company's last reported turnover in 2017 was just shy of £15m. That figure is expected to grow by 25% for 2018.
"We're very flexible," says Ronan. "We do very top level stuff, we've just finished The Devlin hotel, but we do everything.
"We've got a really strong pipeline at the minute with those clients and hopefully a few others.
"We are persevering in the UK, but primarily in London. We've just finished an office fit-out there.
"We're also doing a bit of work for Staycity Aparthotels and we're just about to start a restaurant at Battersea Power Station."
Born and raised just off the Suffolk Road in west Belfast, Ronan relocated to Glenavy, Co Antrim, almost 20 years ago.
"I live in the middle of nowhere, so for me to move from west Belfast to move out there, I'm just about getting used to it now," he laughs.
He married Sonya in 1996, and the couple have four children.
Sonya works for clinical lab trial firm Q2 Solutions, part of the US-based IQVIA group, and spends a lot of time travelling, while his daughters Jessica and Sophie are both university age.
Sons Jim, named after his dad, and Ronan Jnr are both still at primary school and keep him busy with football.
His local CrossFit gym also helps him keep things in check.
"Going to train your heart out, it just helps me to switch off.
"It's tough, you don't think much about work to be honest, you just think about breathing.
"It keeps me sane, without question.
"For the first six months of starting Pure Fitout, things were just non-stop. I started doing cross-fit and it has made a huge difference, it definitely helps, without question."
As it stands, around 80-85% of Pure Fitout's business remains in the Republic.
But despite the new Dublin office, Ronan is adamant that the business will remain in the Belfast area.
"I want to keep it here. I'm from Belfast, I love Belfast. It's also very, very difficult to get good quality tradesmen," he adds.
"We have fantastic staff here. We operate a joinery and metal workshop and it has taken us four years to build up the staff to where we are today, to get that quality.
"I don't want to lose that. It would be a disaster, to be honest."
Reflecting on his career to date, Ronan said much of the firm's success is down to the love of being busy.
"I love working, I love what I do, I love Pure Fitout.
"I want it to grow as much as it possibly can, but at a steady pace.
"We have grown quickly in four years. From myself and Niall working out of a small office to where we are now, it's fantastic.
"There's a huge fit-out sector in Northern Ireland and they are amazing companies, turning over maybe £40-£60m. There's nothing stopping us reaching the size of the big guys."